Given the U.S. Postal Service’s significant role in the nation’s founding, it’s probably not surprising that it owns a number of historic properties. But when the historic institution needs to modernize and optimize its network of postal facilities, how should it handle its historic properties? This has proved an especially volatile question for those citizens most directly affected. A property is eligible for historic status if it meets the National Register criteria, which involve the property’s age, integrity, and significance. That doesn’t mean the property can never be sold or renovated, just that the Postal Service must follow certain regulations to consider the effects of its actions and engage in a consultative process to resolve negative impacts. Complicating the matter, the Postal Service can't readily determine how many of the 9,000 properties it owns (in its portfolio of 32,000 properties managed) are historic. It sold 22 historic properties between October 2010 and June 2013. As of last summer, it had another 25 historic properties up for sale and was considering selling another 28.
The sale or attempted sale of these properties has caused a firestorm of protest and resistance in some communities. Historic properties evoke strong emotions because the building or structure touches people in many ways. They are often seen as a connection with our past and a lesson for future generations. Combine these passions with the attachment that many people have to their local post offices, and it’s easy to see why the sale of historic post offices can be a lightning rod. Another factor is that some of these post offices were built during President Roosevelt’s New Deal and are decorated with murals and other artwork of the era. Citizens worry that they will lose access to the works of art inside.
The Postal Service is an institution in a time of change. It faces significant financial challenges as it attempts to right-size its network so it has the optimal number of facilities for its current mail volume – an amount that has declined since 2007. Occasionally, it will dispose of a historic property as part of its network optimization goals. Our recent audit report reviewed the Postal Service’s management of the preservation and disposal of historic properties and we found numerous areas for improvement. Notably, the Postal Service did not know how many historic properties it owned or what it cost to preserve them. Also, it did not collaborate with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation to improve its preservation regulations compliance.
The Postal Service finds itself with competing obligations: Operating a less-expensive network to improve its financial footing versus the preservation of culture, history, and art. What do you think is the best solution? If it is to preserve these buildings, how should they be paid for?